Chasing the sun at Smith Rock State Park

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I’ve hiked hundreds of miles through old-growth forests, along train tracks, and to the rim of the Grand Canyon. I’ve seen dozens of waterfalls, unspoiled viewpoints, and enough snowy mountaintops to keep my Instagram feed updated until hiking season really begins again next spring.

Yet none of it prepared me for Misery Ridge at Smith Rock State Park on Saturday.

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Smith Rock State Park offers world-renowned rock climbing opportunities, miles of hiking trails, and unmatched views of Central Oregon’s high desert. By all accounts, it is a wonderful park and more than deserves its reputation as one of the Seven Wonders of Oregon.

It also hosts the most terrifying trail I’ve ever encountered, and it’s not even close. The aptly-named Misery Ridge Trail gains about 1,000 feet in one mile before leveling out atop a windswept bluff; for comparison, Dog Mountain, known for its unforgiving ascent in the Columbia River Gorge, climbs only 600 feet in its first mile. Going into the hike, I knew to expect a thousand-foot climb but never internalized what exactly that meant or how big that first number really was … at least until I stopped after 10 minutes to gasp for breath, guzzle water, and ponder how I would ever make it to the top.

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If the ascent had been my only enemy, the trail would have been merely inconvenient, rather than the cause of unshakable night terrors. The trail hugged an exposed ridge, but no ropes or guard rails offered support or reassured hikers that they would not, in fact, fall to their death in the canyon below. The path, narrow enough to accommodate only a single-file line, alternated between steep, craggy rock scrambles and seemingly endless flights of wooden stairs, doing little to assuage my lifelong fear of heights. The higher I hiked, the more I reassured myself before tackling the next switchback: “If people fell down the cliff that often, they would have installed some kind of support or closed the trail altogether,” I told myself. “Thousands of people do this every year. Just don’t look down, and you’ll be fine.”

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Easier said than done. I looked down early and often. How could I not, with the Crooked River snaking through the canyon, made all the more impressive by khaki-colored rocks rising from the Earth before me? Having mostly hiked in forests throughout western Oregon, I had no idea this brand of geological wonder existed beyond the Southwest United States. The scene that extended for miles represented a sharp turn from the rugged coastline, idyllic farms, and dense forests my home state is otherwise known for; in between bouts of anxiety and dread, I found myself wholeheartedly enchanted by the Wild West landscape.

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When I arrived at the top of the bluff, I found the Central Oregon that existed for years only in my imagination. The immense boulders and claustrophobic fir trees I knew from Portland-area forests gave way to 20-foot-tall Ponderosa pine trees that revealed an electric blue sky, knee-high bushes with gnarled trunks, actual tumbleweeds that somehow rolled uphill, and rocks the color of light beer. In the distance, stunning rock formations reached for the clouds, their jagged spines looking like an erratic stock market chart. Thousands of scorching summers, bitter winters, and wind-swept springs forged every inch of this landscape. A thousand feet above the desert, I could feel it.

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Nature is never far away in cities like Portland or Eugene, yet all but the tallest peaks and trees get boxed out by buildings and sprawl. And the thick, towering forests of the Gorge limit most views to the next bend on the trail, creating an ever-impending sense of claustrophobia. So while the world may feel small in the Gorge or in the Willamette Valley, it never seems to end in Central Oregon. Smith Rock drives this home by offering unbridled views broken up only by cloud cover on the horizon. Pastoral farmlands, residential neighborhoods, busy highways, unforgiving desert, tree-lined canyons, and the peaceful Crooked River all nudge up against each other, all the way to the ends of the Earth.

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